Modern Classic Film Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

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Here May You See the Tyrant

(The Tragedy of Macbeth, Roman Polanski, UK/US, 1971, 120 mins)

A filmic adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ financed by a softcore porn tycoon, featuring scenes of horrific violence, and made in the aftermath of the brutal slaying of the director’s wife and unborn child; on paper, Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy of Macbeth seems doomed. But, from that troubled genesis, the director conjures an interesting and refreshing interpretation of the Bard’s rarer monster.

Following the titular protagonist (Jon Finch) and his blood-soaked quest for the Scottish throne, Macbeth, an examination of ambition, murder, revenge, madness, fate, and guilt, lends itself to darkness. Fittingly, Polanski and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor bring a gritty realism to the piece, a world away from the stylised likes of Orson Welles’ 1948 noir adaptation. This Scotland is a dark, muddy hovel filled with incessant rain and fog – a locale appropriate for a tale of murderous, supernaturally-influenced ambition. Likewise, the characters of the piece, from the toothless gateman to the lank-haired thanes, are coated with grime – even the eponymous antihero’s cloak emits a visible cloud of dust when he is embraced by Duncan.

In line with this realism, the scenes of violence are amplified in their brutality but lack any blatant stylisation. Combat is a clumsy yet deadly affair – men stumble in heavy armour, blows bounce harmlessly off chainmail, and fights are drawn out and tiring. But, when steel finally meets flesh, the results are unflinchingly brutal. Indeed, whereas Shakespeare confined most of Macbeth’s violence to offstage, Polanski moves it, blades, blood and all, to the centre of his adaptation: eyes are gouged, throats are slit, and heads are lopped off.

In focussing on the violent realities of war and murder, Polanski renders the piece colder than its textual analogue. Undoing the sympathetic aspects inherent in most of Shakespeare’s characters, the director reduces even the noble Macduff (Terence Bayler) to a mere instrument of vengeance, while Macbeth himself, by the full brutality of his actions being shown, is rendered positively monstrous. The tragedy in this Macbeth is not found in its protagonist but in the plight of the slain; in the body count the titular hellhound amasses before he meets his end upon Macduff’s blade.

This intensification of violence is not the only liberty Polanski takes with the original text – Jon Finch’s Macbeth is not a wizened veteran, but a young, ambitious lord. But, his brooding glare and intense delivery more than compensates for his physical slightness and youthful complexion. Indeed, Finch’s reading of Macbeth’s final soliloquy, mourning what his dark deeds have cost him, is filled with affecting torment and longing for a life he has drowned in blood.

Likewise, Lady Macbeth’s (Francesca Annis) black and deep desires are hidden within an altogether more alluring form than in most adaptations. Sadly,  Annis – youthful, beautiful and fragile – is, for most of the piece, a waif-like non-entity rather than a Machiavellian matriarch. Indeed, her character’s famous coercion of her husband to commit regicide is uttered through tears and whimpers rather than bared teeth. In this sense, Polanski’s reimagining fails to convince, reducing a character who is essentially a medieval femme fatale to that of a petulant child, more likely to pour whines than spirits in her husband’s ear.

Other additions hint that financier Hugh Hefner suggested that Polanski endow the piece with a tad more titillation. But, despite Lady Macbeth’s somnambulant confession of her guilt being performed in the nude, it is the acres of ancient, cracked, and sagging flesh on show in the witches’ coven that endures in the mind. With Annis’ flowing locks largely protecting her modesty, Polanski retains the integrity of the piece while conjuring the memorable image of Macbeth moving through a throng of countless crones, the shifting glow of the cave’s fire casting long, threatening shadows over their naked flesh.

Thankfully, Polanski resists the urge to rewrite the bard; Shakespeare’s evocative language remains intact, barring the use of voiceover for the characters’ soliloquies. Rather than detract from the piece, this simple change merely heightens the realistic tone prevalent throughout. All of this combines to render Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy of Macbeth a work of deep, dark sound and overwhelming fury, told, not by an idiot, but by a director at the height of his powers.

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